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Congress advances border security bill without Trump border wall

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Thursday aimed to end a dispute over border security with legislation that would ignore President Donald Trump’s request for $5.7 billion to help build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border but avoid a partial government shutdown.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens next to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Late on Wednesday, negotiators put the finishing touches on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, along with a range of other federal agencies.

Racing against a Friday midnight deadline, when operating funds expire for the agencies that employ about 800,000 workers at the DHS, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and others, the Senate and House of Representatives aimed to pass the legislation later on Thursday.

That would give Trump time to review the measure and sign it into law before temporary funding for about one-quarter of the government expires.

Failure to do so would shutter many government programs, from national parks maintenance and air traffic controller training programs to the collection and publication of important data for financial markets, for the second time this year.

“This agreement denies funding for President Trump’s border wall and includes several key measures to make our immigration system more humane,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, said in a statement.

According to congressional aides, the final version of legislation would give the Trump administration $1.37 billion in new money to help build 55 miles (88.5 km) of new physical barriers on the southwest border, far less than what Trump had been demanding.

It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

Since he ran for office in 2016, Trump has been demanding billions of dollars to build a wall on the southwest border, saying “crisis” conditions required a quick response to stop the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, largely from Central America.

He originally said Mexico would pay for a 2,000-mile (3,200-km) concrete wall – an idea that Mexico dismissed.

Trump has not yet said whether he would sign the legislation into law if the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led Senate approve it, even as many of his fellow Republicans in Congress were urging him to do so.

Instead, he said on Wednesday he would hold off on a decision until he examines the final version of legislation.

But Trump, widely blamed for a five-week shutdown that ended in January, said he did not want to see federal agencies close again because of fighting over funds for the wall.

‘NATIONAL EMERGENCY’

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is in regular contact with the White House, said Trump was “inclined to take the deal and move on.”

But Graham also told reporters that Trump would then look elsewhere to find more money to build a border wall and was “very inclined” to declare a national emergency to secure the funds for the project.

Such a move likely would spark a court battle, as it is Congress and not the president that mainly decides how federal funds get spent. Several leading Republicans have cautioned Trump against taking the unilateral action.

Under the bill, the government could hire 75 new immigrant judge teams to help reduce a huge backlog in cases and hundreds of additional border patrol agents.

Hoping to reduce violence and economic distress in Central America that fuels immigrant asylum cases in the United States, the bill also provides $527 million to continue humanitarian assistance to those countries.

The House Appropriations Committee said the bill would set a path for reducing immigrant detention beds to about 40,520 by the end of the fiscal year, down from a current count of approximately 49,060.

Democrats sought reductions, arguing that would force federal agents to focus on apprehending violent criminals and repeat offenders and discourage arrests of undocumented immigrants for minor traffic violations, for example.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is run by Republicans, said there were provisions in the bill that could result in an increase in detention beds from last year.

Lowey said the bill would improve medical care and housing of immigrant families in detention and expand a program providing alternatives to detention.

The wide-ranging bill also contains some important domestic initiatives, including a $1.2 billion increase in infrastructure investments for roads, bridges and other ground transport, as well as more for port improvements.

With the 2020 decennial census nearing, the bill provides a $1 billion increase for the nationwide count. Also, federal workers, battered by the record 35-day partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22 as Trump held out for wall funding, would get a 1.9 percent pay increase if the bill becomes law.

Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Robert Birsel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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New round of U.S.-China trade talks to begin in Washington on Tuesday

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Aides set up platforms before a group photo with members of U.S. and Chinese trade negotiation delegations at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China February 15, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new round of talks between the United States and China to resolve their trade war will take place in Washington on Tuesday, with follow-up sessions at a higher level later in the week, the White House said on Monday.

The talks follow a round of negotiations that ended in Beijing last week without a deal but which officials said had generated progress on contentious issues between the world’s two largest economies.

The talks are aimed at “achieving needed structural changes in China that affect trade between the United States and China. The two sides will also discuss China’s pledge to purchase a substantial amount of goods and services from the United States,” the White House said in a statement.

The higher-level talks will start on Thursday and be led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a strong proponent of pressing China to end practices that the United States says include forced technology transfers from U.S. companies and intellectual property theft.

China, which denies that it engages in such practices, confirmed that Vice Premier Liu He will visit Washington on Thursday and Friday for the talks.

The White House said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and trade adviser Peter Navarro would also take part in the talks.

U.S. tariffs on $200 billion in imports from China are set to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent if no deal is reached by March 1.

Trump, who suggested last week that he could extend the deadline for the talks, reiterated in a speech on Monday that the negotiations had been fruitful.

“We’re making a lot of progress. Nobody expected this was going to be happening,” he told a crowd in Florida.

Reporting by Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard and Lusha Zhang in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait

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Facebook broke rules, should be regulated: UK lawmakers

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LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook intentionally breached data privacy and competition law and should, along with other big tech companies, be subject to a new regulator to protect democracy and citizens’ rights, British lawmakers said on Monday.

In a damning report that singled out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for what it said was a failure of leadership and personal responsibility, the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said tech firms had proved ineffective in stopping harmful content on their platforms.

This included disinformation, attempts by foreign countries to influence elections, and risks to personal data.

“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people,” committee chairman Damian Collins said.

Collins said the age of inadequate self-regulation must end, following an 18-month investigation that concluded Facebook had “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.”

“The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by Parliament, and overseen by an independent regulator,” he said.

Facebook rejected the suggestion it had breached data protection and competition laws, and said it shared the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity.

“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform,” Facebook’s UK public policy manager Karim Palant said.

“We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users.”

Lawmakers in Europe and the United States are scrambling to get to grips with the risks posed by big tech companies regulating the platforms used by billions of people.

Germany has been at the forefront of the backlash against Facebook, fueled by last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in which tens of millions of Facebook profiles were harvested without their users’ consent. Earlier this month, it ordered Facebook to curb its data collection practices in the country.

U.S senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill last month aimed at giving Americans more control over data collected by online companies like Facebook and Alphabet’s Google.

The British committee does not propose legislation, but does have the power to summon witnesses for its investigations.

ZUCKERBERG NO SHOW

Facebook became the focus of its inquiry after whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data of millions of users of the social network.

Zuckerberg apologized last year for a “breach of trust” over the scandal.

But he refused to appear three times before British lawmakers, a stance that showed “contempt” toward parliament and the members of nine legislatures from around the world, the committee said.

“We believe that in its evidence to the committee Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions,” Collins said.

“Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies.”

Facebook, however, said it had cooperated with the investigation by answering more than 700 questions and putting forward four senior executives to give evidence.

It said it had made substantial changes, including the authorization of every political advert, and it was investing heavily in identifying abusive content.

“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago,” Palant said.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

The committee said it had identified major threats to society from the dominance of companies such as Facebook – which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram – Google and Twitter.

Democracy was at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalized adverts from unidentifiable sources, they said, and social media platforms were failing to act against harmful content and respect the privacy of users.

Companies like Facebook were also using their size to bully smaller firms that relied on social media platforms to reach customers, it added.

Editing by Hugh Lawson and Mark Potter

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Alibaba is the force behind hit Chinese Communist Party app: sources

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BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese government propaganda app that recently became a huge hit was developed by Alibaba, two people at the company told Reuters, at a time when the nation’s tech firms are under global scrutiny over their ties to Beijing.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Alibaba Group is seen at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

“Xuexi Qiangguo”, which literally translates as ‘Study to make China strong’ and is a play on the government propaganda theme of applying President Xi Jinping’s thoughts, overtook Tik Tok and WeChat to become the county’s most popular app on Apple’s China app store last week.

It was developed by a largely unknown special projects team at Alibaba known as the “Y Projects Business Unit”, which takes on development projects outside the company, said the people.

New York-listed Alibaba declined to comment on whether the business unit had developed the app.

The app’s development by Alibaba, whose Chairman Jack Ma is a member of the Communist Party, is the latest example of a Chinese tech company collaborating with the government.

The country’s propaganda department has released the app ahead of next month’s National People’s Congress in Beijing, China’s top annual parliamentary gathering.

JOB OPPORTUNITIES

The app, which includes short videos, government news stories and quizzes, was created by an Alibaba team. A user of Alibaba’s own messaging app DingTalk can use their login credentials to log into Xuexi Qiangguo. Alibaba said the app was built using DingTalk’s software.

Staff at the Alibaba unit are responsible for developing and maintaining the app that includes news, videos, livestream and community comments, according to the sources and a job advertised for Xuexi Qiangguo on Alibaba’s career website.

The unit does not have a website, but is described in job ads on popular Chinese careers site Zhipin.com as a strategic level project that is in a creation stage and offers many job opportunities.

At least part of the app’s runaway popularity can be attributed to directives issued by local governments and universities that require people in China’s expansive party member network to download the app.

The app has been downloaded over 43.7 million times on Apple and Android devices since its launch in January, according to estimates by Beijing-based statistical consulting firm Qimai.

It was not immediately clear whether Alibaba makes money from the app, or who initiated its development.

Last month, Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai slammed U.S. treatment of fellow Chinese tech firm Huawei Technologies as “extremely unfair”, and sharply criticized what he called an attempt by the U.S. government to curb China’s rise via the trade war.

Huawei, the world’s biggest network equipment maker, has been largely barred from the United States and some other countries on suspicion that its products could be used as a conduit for spying. Huawei and China have denied the allegations.

EXTENSIVE COLLABORATION

But major Chinese tech companies have cooperated extensively with governments in China on infrastructure, cloud computing and public security as part of the country’s “Internet Plus” policy drive to improve traditional industries.

Collaboration with state media has also increased in recent years, amid tighter censorship laws that require companies to toe the party line.

Tik Tok creator Beijing ByteDance Technology Co and WeChat creator Tencent Holdings Ltd are among some who have collaborated with state media outlets using their social media platforms.

“The upside for these firms is that their track record of cooperation can put them in a better position to obtain key licenses or opportunities,” said Mark Natkin, managing director at Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, adding these collaborations were Beijing’s way of maintaining control over private firms.

“The downside is they may get tapped to participate in projects which, on economic or PR considerations alone they might normally eschew, but which may be uncomfortable or unwise to refuse.”

Reporting by Pei Li and Cate Cadell, Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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